While we were hiking at Caesar Creek Gorge State Nature Preserve, I happened across this frothy, little mess.
I had previously encountered this bubbly stuff on grass.
It turns out that this is the work of a spittlebug, and you are looking at his spittle.
Okay, it’s not exactly spittle. The spittlebug youngsters (called nymphs) tap into plants and suck their sap. According to this Wikipedia article, while consuming sap the nymphs use the “excess, filtered fluids” to produce their characteristic froth. The article didn’t say exactly how they do this, and I’m not sure I want to know.
In each of the above photos a nymph is hidden within the bubbles. I have almost convinced myself that I can see a shadowy nymph on top of the stem in the uppermost photo. But I’ve never encountered a nymph outside of his bubbles, so I’m publishing a photo of one that I found at Wikimedia Commons
The sap-sucking does damage the plant. If you’re a farmer with oodles of these bugs sucking on your crops, you have a problem. However if we look at how the bubbles benefit the bug, it’s really quite impressive. According to the same Wikipedia article:
- Predators (whether bugs or birds) don’t easily realize that there is a yummy, little treat inside all that froth.
- The bubbles insulate the nymph so that the temperature is just right for its development.
- The bubbles keep the nymph moist.
- If an animal is daring enough to sample the froth, it has an acrid, disagreeable taste further discouraging predation.
The scientific name for this little creature is Philaenus spumarius which roughly means that it “loves sparkles.” The “sparkles” are an allusion to the light reflecting off its bubbles.
The adult bug has its own super-power: it is an amazing jumper. An adult spittlebug can jump 70 cm (2.3 feet) which is one hundred times its body length. Because of their jumping prowess, spittlebugs also go by the name “froghopper”.
This is the time of year that little gobs of nymph “spittle” can be found on plants here and there. If you aren’t too grossed out by them, try taking a closer look. Sometimes you can see bubbles within bubbles, and sometimes the bubbles sparkle.
I just came across an explanation of how spittlebugs make their “spittle,” but I am too genteel to publish it here. However to support the spirit of inquiry of those who dare to know more, I am linking to the Ohio State University article where all is revealed.